Before Saturday night, I haven't been to the Knitting Factory since late 2001, the last time I played there. Since then, of course, the booking policy has changed radically, emphasizing indie rock and booking jazz and avant musics- the mainstays of the club when I lived in New York- once in a blue moon. That said, I had a strange sense of deja vu walking in- everything looked, and felt, and even smelled the same. The bands on the signs were different, but everything was in the same place, and the beer list was almost unchanged. Even the renovation of the Tap Bar (they took out the wall that used to divide it into two rooms) didn't change the feel at all for me.
The festival, primarily an artist showcase for APAP, a international association of presenters in town for a convention, did nothing to dispel my nostalgia. Several of the old Knit mainstays- Dave Douglas, Don Byron, and Wayne Horowitz, to name three- anchored the bill, buffered by young lights like Matana Roberts, JD Allen and the Bjorkestra. I'm no longer able to digest six hours of music all at once, and the Patriots game was stuck in the middle for good measure, but here's what I heard: (Ben Ratliff has a good review, catching a lot of the big names I missed)
- I caught the first few tunes of Travis Sullivan's Bjorkestra. I'd heard some about the band, and remember really liking Travis when I met him a few years back at someone's party. Bjork's music invites reinterpretation- probably one reason why so many jazz musicians are smitten with her- but putting pop tunes, not matter how conducive to big band, can be tricky or worse. (has anyone else ever heard Duke's misbegotten "I Want to Hold Your Hand") The Bjorkestra handles the material nimble- it does a nice job capturing the flavor of the songs without aping the original baldly or taking things way far afield. There is a floating figure that weaves its way around the vocal on "Joga", back and forth through the sections, like tying a bow around the piece. The soloing was solid but unmemorable, and Becca Stevens handled the impossible job of singing Bjork with aplomb. I had to move on, but enjoyed what I heard.
- I'm both a friend and a fan of Matana Roberts, so I was excited to hear her Coin Coin project, a band created to perform a series of long works (five and counting) shaped largely from Matana's study of her ancestry. (for much more, see her blog) The band played a shortened version of the second piece/chapter, Mississippi Moonchile. The piece was a swirling stew of spirituals, blues shouts, folk themes, and improvisations, with themes popping up and then bouncing out, only to reappear and flesh themselves out later on. At times Matana would stop playing and read from interviews she's done with an older relative, often returning back to one things she'd said, bringing a stream of consciousness feel to both the spoken word and the music. It almost feels like your standing in the middle of a version of her family history, watching facts and stories, sounds and emotions swirl around you out of time. It was clear that this was an abridged version of the piece- there were sections that you could tell wanted to breathe more, and Matana was sometimes calling directions to the band to push the music forward, but even so it was a riveting performance.
- I caught the tail end of Don Byron's set, and honestly didn't know what to make it. Ratliff called it salon music, and that seems right- intimate, straigtforward songs with Byron commenting tastefully around the lyric.
- David Murray's set seemed to have the most buzz around it, and he certainly didn't disappoint. He came out firing with a tune of his, a clear but open form, which he obliterated as soon as he started blowing. I will admit I've never been a David Murray fan, but for the first time I clearly saw the attraction- his sound is huge, if unfocused for my taste, and he has built a unique, brawny tenor language. There's a harmonic logic to some of his blitz-like playing that is really interesting, and god can the man play it up high. As I was leaving the set, another man, clearly a fan, came out shaking his head. "Man, David is playing SOME horn; ain't nobody gonna cut him. Nobody." And if you approach jazz from that mindset, it's easy to see why David Murray could be your man. I don't, so I came away impressed but ready to move on.
- I hopped downstairs to catch the last two tunes of Brad Shepik's trio set. For those of us who were first introduced to Brad in the off its hinges Tiny Bell Trio, it can be a little jarring at first to hear him playing straightahead, modern guitar, but he's damn good at it. I heard more of a Metheny influence that in the past, but that could just be me. That said, the tunes drew me in, and the playing was really tasty. I was really glad to have heard it.
- Shepik was followed by Hypercolor, a guitar trio featuring drummer (and son of the great composer) Lukas Ligeti. The set was again, the Knit I remember, off-kilter fusion tunes in odd meters played with reckless abandon. The guitarist Eyel Maoz was playing with a grungy, almost Dick Dale sound, adding to the raucous air of the group. I have a feeling that I used to be much more into this music than I was Saturday night- it had a ton of energy, but for me not much else.
- Following Murray upstairs was Zimology, a quartet of South African musicians led by saxophonist Zim Ngqawana. Didn't care for it at all. Zim can clearly play, but the tunes lacked any coherence, the blowing was pretty standard "weird/avant" stuff, and he alternated seemingly willy-nilly between horns and sing/shouting, even making noises by running his finger over his mouth like we all did as kids. Plus, on a night where the sets were short, he started late (not his fault) and ran way over (his, and the club's fault). I was excited about seeing Chris Dave's trio, but couldn't because I had to go catch my train before his set even ended.
So, as with most of these deals, I came away knocked out and underwhelmed all at once. Part of me says I should've missed the game, seen the big names and bailed before midnight, but I enjoyed the game too (and the outcome, certainly), so I'm not complaining.